When a polarizing player like Tom Wilson ends up on the winning side of a suspension appeal, the response from the masses is predictably negative. Wilson’s latest dirty hit, a check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist, was as bad as any in Wilson’s murky history and few batted an eye at the resulting 20-game suspension. Yet, his appeal’s final stage landed with a neutral arbitrator who took issue with the NHL Department of Player Safety’s use of a multiplier that was not rooted in the Collective Bargaining Agreement nor was it supported by precedent. Just like that, Wilson’s suspension was reduced to 14 games and he is right back on the ice tonight for the Washington Capitals. Unsurprisingly, fans, pundits, and competitors alike are not impressed with the decision:
- One of the few happy to see Wilson back early is Washington GM Brian MacLellan and even he is treading carefully on the subject. MacLellan sat down with NHL.com’s Dan Rose and made it clear that Wilson has to change his game if he wants to stay on the ice. “We’ve talked about it numerous times,” MacLellan said, “there are certain hits that he just has to stop trying… He’s going to have to avoid some hits and he’s going to have to let up on some hits also. You can’t have the same force because he hits hard and it looks bad, and sometimes he’s going to be evaluated on the force.” For MacLellan and the Caps – who signed Wilson to a massive six-year, $31MM contract this off-season – they simply need Wilson to stay active and contribute, as they’re paying him to do. “At the end of the day, missing 15, 16 games, it can’t happen,” Wilson himself commented on the incident. The question now is whether or not MacLellan and the team can actually influence Wilson into changing his playing style.
- One fellow player frustrated with both the process and result is Pittsburgh Penguins veteran Matt Cullen. Cullen, 42, has been around longer than virtually every other player in the NHL today and knows a thing or two about how the game operates, or at least how it should. Cullen told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “When the next CBA comes up, that’s something we (should) address… I don’t think anybody is real happy with it.” Mackey points out that Cullen is unlikely to still be around when the next agreement is negotiated, but the opinion of a respected player still carries weight. Cullen is disappointed not only in the reduction of the suspension – the rival Penguins are no fans of Wilson – but more so in how it occurred. “I don’t think it’s a good look for our league, for our game to need to go to appeals… You’d like the headlines to be about the play on the ice and the players, not the other (stuff) going on outside of the game… I think most guys probably don’t love that — that it got reduced in that manner as far as going to appeal after appeal.” Interestingly, neutral arbitration is very much a player-friendly process that the NHLPA fought for. The idea is to take away any bias from the league by allowing a third party to review all of the facts independently. Yet, Cullen makes a good point that the ordeal is lengthy and not ideal optically either. Especially given that the Department of Player Safety is run mostly by former players, perhaps Cullen speaks on behalf of all players that in the next CBA they would be better off with eliminating the independent arbitrator.
- And what of the arbitrator himself? Shyam Das has been a thorn in the side of the NHL, but likely won’t be for much longer. While an independent arbitrator, Das is employed by the league for his services. In overturning Wilson’s suspension, Das has now decided for the player in each of his three cases for the league: Wilson, Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson, and then-Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman. Each of those three cases were high-profile and concerning a sensitive subject; Wideman attacked a referee, Watson was accused of domestic assault, and Wilson is the league’s most notorious “thug”. In each instance, the NHL would have very much liked to have seen their decision hold, only to have Das contradict them. Das was fired by Major League Baseball for similarly one-sided decisions and his time with the NHL will likely end the same way.